Alexander Medel

There is no sight more gratifying to me than the open road, for the open road allows the body to wander and the mind to wonder. It offers an escape for the imagination and a way of life governed by freedom and fueled by curiosity.

My name is Alexander, and I am a first year in Timothy Dwight College studying political science. Naturally, my day is complete with writing papers, reading research articles and attending lectures. And as much as I am a Yale student, I consider myself a student of the world with the open road as my classroom.

This travel column, On the Road, recounts several of my adventures on asphalt and all the lessons I have learned from the people, places and things I have encountered on all roads, from those well-traveled to those not taken.


The Tehachapi Pass was well within the rearview mirror as the midday sun shone through the cloud-dotted California sky. With luck and much squinting, I saw the faded, fleeting images of distant mountains sailing on a sea of sand like phantom ships, ready to fade into the distant horizon. But, for the most part, I was surrounded by the low-lying sands of the Mojave Desert. 

Notwithstanding the fact that it is among the world’s hottest deserts, I somehow found myself with my family in the middle of the Mojave in the middle of June. Watching the road before me, it began to undulate and ripple like waves on a pond as hot air emanated from the asphalt and refracted the light from the afternoon sun. Seeking a different sight, my eyes scanned the desert for something to captivate my mind. Then, I found it.

It was here in the desert that I came across a new form of agriculture. It did not demand of the desert that which it had no capacity to give. Rather, it asked for something it offered in vast abundance. The currency of cultivation in the Mojave is not water; it is light. In the distance, sharp and bright streaks of light glistened from the desert floor, indicating one of the many solar farms in the region. They dotted the landscape, temporarily blinding any set of wandering eyes with their brilliant glow. 

Continuing on the highway and passing through Edwards Air Force Base, I spotted some salt pans, finding it hard to differentiate their seas of salt from the desert’s seas of sand. But where some would see monotony, I see freedom. I have been on many road trips in my life that have offered colorful, captivating and awe-inspiring sites that were intricate in their beauty and grandeur. But here — where the palettes are humble, the air is still and the distance offers no distractions — you are alone. Driving through the Mojave reminded me of the seductive and spellbinding allure of the open road, for the open road offers solitude, and, from that solitude, a clarity of mind seldom found anywhere else. The open road sets dreams free from the shackles of sleep and a spirit of adventure from any busied and troubled heart. Taking in its quietude, I waited patiently as we continued east toward Barstow for lunch.

With a population of roughly 25,000, Barstow is known by many for being a stop on the road to Las Vegas. Founded as a railroad town, it was a key stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Decades later, the city would become a waypoint on U.S. Route 66. With this relationship, Barstow earned itself a place in popular culture with a lyrical shout-out in the Nat King Cole song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” Times, however, have changed. Today, the trains running through Barstow are sparse. Route 66 has become emblematic of a bygone era. Regardless, the city remains an important junction for travelers driving across the Inland Empire. Heading north takes travelers to Las Vegas. Heading south takes travelers to Needles. After eating lunch, we headed north.

On the road to Las Vegas, in between Barstow and the California-Nevada border, is the small community of Baker. It boasts a humble population, roughly the size of a large residential college. And to someone who calls one of the nation’s largest cities home, walking on its “Main Street” puts things into perspective rather promptly. For travelers, Baker offers a series of gas stations and restaurants, but we did not stop for gas or food. We stopped to visit its call to fame: the World’s Tallest Thermometer.

An apt roadside attraction for a region ranked among the hottest in the world, this working thermometer was built in 1991 and measures 134 feet, commemorating the highest temperature recorded in nearby Death Valley of 134 degrees Fahrenheit. It can easily steal any traveler’s attention from the low and flat desert plains. Stepping out of the car, even for a brief moment, was like stepping into a General Electric oven. Sweat rolled down my face quicker than my realization that I was hot. Seeking shelter and much-needed air conditioning, I went into the thermometer’s gift shop.

The gift shop, in stark contrast to the parking lot outside, was cool and clothed in a clean coat of white. Souvenirs — such as postcards, shot glasses and shirts — lined the stalls and climbed across the store’s walls. It was looking at them and their dazzling array of bright colors that I realized how desperate my eyes were for a respite from the endless sight of desert yellow. Feasting on the visual buffet of shades and hues left unoffered by the sands around me, I found a small exhibit featuring photos of travelers who visited the store over the years. Some were recent. Some were old. And below these images were cash bills from their countries of origin. As someone who collects foreign currency, this display naturally caught my eye. But what impressed me the most was not the number of bills pinned to the wall, but their diversity. Almost any currency the mind could think of was there: the dollar, euro, peso, franc, yen and more. The whole world seems to have converged upon this small community for its humble touristic offering. It fascinated me, as a traveler, to know that people from various walks of life from various parts of the globe stepped where I was, and what made it all the more profound was that I was not standing on an Art Deco skyscraper in New York, beneath a clock tower in London or atop a steel tower in Paris. I was gazing up at a tall thermometer in Baker, finding rest in its forgiving shadow from the unforgiving sun.

We continued our trip and made our way to Las Vegas, where we spent a few days exploring its restaurants, and to the Grand Canyon. We drove back home the same way we came: through the Mojave. Once again, we stopped at Barstow for a brief lunch before proceeding west. After a few miles and a few minutes, we suddenly found ourselves on an unfamiliar stretch of road. We were lost. As we meandered and wandered for a short while, we suddenly came across a sign. Its colors were faded, consumed by the desert sun, and it was cracked around its edges. But its message was clear: we were on government property. Somehow, we managed to find our way to the entrance of a public road that ran through Edwards Air Force Base. Driving past the sign, we encountered more of its companions. Their messages were different, from photography restrictions to warnings about military practices. Needless to say, as good citizens, we heeded them to the tee. We continued our way west for a few miles and exited the base.

Thinking that our troubles were behind us, I decided to settle in for a nap until we reached the interstate. Shortly after closing my eyes, however, another predicament awakened me. The car’s monitor stated that there was something wrong with the tires. We pulled onto the side of the road, and my dad inspected all four tires in the same manner a student might check their midterm before submitting it to a professor. Nothing. No holes. No punctures. There was no indication of what might be causing the trouble, yet the alert remained. Perplexed, we continued driving west, looking on our maps for the nearest gas station with an air pump. All the while, I pondered the complexities of our situation. Should our tires fail, we would be stranded in the middle of the Mojave in summer, far away from assistance with the ability to call for aid dependent on vexing fluctuations of signal. I proceeded to count down the miles it took to the nearest gas station, as a child would do seconds before the New Year, to ease my worries. And, to my relief, we made it.

Reaching the small community of Neenach, we pulled into the gas station. Taking a respite from the ride and the restlessness caused by the problem, I took a walk around the station. As my dad sought to remedy the problem with the tires, he was approached by a local whose vehicle of choice that late afternoon was an ATV. Coming out of nowhere, he recognized the situation our car was in and offered his knowledge and advice. My recollection fails me in recounting the exact conversation; I can only remember vague mentions of temperature and tire pressure. However, my recollection succeeds in remembering my genuine astonishment at the fortuitous circumstances I found myself in. Here I was in the middle of the desert with my parents and a car that was about to surrender to the climes. And in the middle of this anxiety and confusion came a godsend in the form of a stranger who offered his wisdom freely and who we saw once and never again.

We thanked him for his time and assistance, as well as his patient explanation of car anatomy, and prepared for the remainder of our journey home. He wished us well, and after filling his ATV with fuel, he drove off. Soon, the ATV grew smaller and smaller, reaching further beyond the horizon. The roar of its motor and sound of its tires grazing through a gravel road produced echoes that grew faint with each passing second. Meanwhile, the dust trails it produced painted the sky with sand, its terrestrial clouds growing softer and more diffuse as they were carried by the wind. They levitated, climbing higher and inching closer to the setting sun. Having dissipated completely, everything returned to what it was. The dust settled. The echoes faded. The desert was still.